How to Fit a Backpack
Posted by Mileva H., Assistant Director of UREC, Outdoor on Wednesday, December 2, 2020 at 1:00 PM PST
Most of us have been wearing backpacks for school since before we can remember; probably full of heavy books that weighed on our shoulders and made us feel like awkward turtles. You may have negative associations of backpacks because of that. We get it. The aim of this article is to help leave the “mental baggage” behind by dialing in your actual physical bag to fit and feel good for your body. This is key in wearing a large pack, as you hike all your stuff on your back for multiple days!
Beside comfortable hiking shoes, your backpack is the next most important piece of equipment that can literally make-or-break a backpacking experience. You want it to fit and function properly. Backpacks come in different sizes (think XS to XL) and carrying capacities (usually given in 35-80+ Liters, related to how much stuff you can haul). The size is related to your torso length. Some backpacks are a set size, while others are adjustable so you can customize the bag to your individual needs. Making sure you have the right sized backpack for your body is the first place to start if buying or borrowing a bag.
Not sure? You can start dialing the attachment system, which will help you determine if you need to change bags or just make adjustments to what you’ve got. In setting yourself up for success, think: hips, shoulders, chest. In that order!
This is the building block of your whole set up. The backpack has what’s called a hipbelt, to be worn atop your hips. The top of the hipbelt should be placed about an inch above the top of your hipbone (dig into your waistline to find that boney bit), and should cup your hips without the potential to slide down. Your legs are incredibly strong, so you want the majority of the pack weight resting on your hips (NOT your shoulders which will be quickly fatigued). Buckle up and adjust the belt straps to make this more securely attached to your body. You will probably have a muffin top, like most everyone else. You look great! Just make sure the belt is where it is designed to be.
Now that you have the hips set, you can more accurately see if the pack size is right for you by checking the shoulder fit. The straps are designed to wrap around your body, but not to pull you into an unnatural alignment or carry any significant weight that causes unnecessary stress to your neck, shoulder and upper back muscles. The place where the shoulder straps are attached to the pack, should start about 1-3” below your shoulders – ask a friend or look for your reflection. The straps should then curve up your shoulder blades and over the top of your shoulders, with very little gap (no more than an inch or finger’s width between the strap and your shoulder).
If not, let’s do some problem-solving: check the smaller straps atop/attached to the shoulders (called load-lifters) usually around your collar-bone level, and loosen them to potentially allow the shoulder straps to lower into their proper place. Also try the ends of the shoulder straps; pulling down to tighten the shoulder straps to your body. If these adjustments don’t seem to work correctly, estimate how much gap there is and then adjust the torso length on the pack itself. Different packs have different ways to raise or lower the shoulder strap base, so good luck with that, but once completed, repeat hips and shoulders until the pack is correctly adjusted for your back.
With your hips and shoulders set, your fit is mostly complete! Just one last piece to adjust: the sternum strap. This helps bring the shoulder straps in towards your body, and out of your armpits so your arms can move more freely. It also preventing needless rubbing and subsequent skin rashes! Buckle the strap and tighten until comfortable for you. Most sternum straps can adjust up or down on tracks in the shoulder straps, so be sure to adjust the strap to cross your chest at the most comfortable place for your body.
Once you have your pack loaded up with gear, it will fit a little differently and you can make final adjustments. If you feel like one side is heavier than another, you need to repack and better distribute the weight (that’s another post!). If there’s too much shoulder tension, reduce the tightness of your shoulder straps or the load-lifter straps just above your shoulders. If you feel like you are being pulled backwards, pull the load-lifters straps in and feel the pack weight being pulled closer to your back (and center of gravity) for better balance. Beware of overtightened load-lifters, as this will cause a gap between your shoulder strap and shoulder. The load-lifter straps should angle from your shoulders to the pack at about a 45 degree angle.
Now you have the basics! As with everything, the more practice you get, the easier dialing in your backpack becomes. Soon you will be making micro adjustments as you hike, without even thinking about it.
UREC has backpacks to rent, in various sizes for our varied bodies. We love helping you customizing your set up, so you can go have an enjoyable experience in nature!